Pet Loss Grief Support Animals in our Hearts  Animal Communication Teresa Wagner
  • Everything that lives is holy.

    William Blake

Personal Reflections on Living with the Big Sur Fires

Big Sur

copyright 2008 Teresa Wagner
all rights reserved

My cats and I are blessed to live in this beautiful place on earth called Big Sur. It is a holy place, a sacred place, the spiritual energy of which is felt just by driving any of the 90 miles of coast highway that dramatically dissects land and sea. We make our home in a 150 year old log cabin in a redwood forest, just in from the ocean. This forest is nestled in a canyon directly adjacent to the perimeter of one of the Big Sur fires still burning. Since mid June over 2,000 separate fires have begun burning throughout California. Over 1,000,000 acres of wilderness and wildlife habitat have burned.

Thanks to the heroic work of over 1,900 firefighters, the 162,818 acre wildfire near our home is now "contained"-- meaning it is not yet "out" and will not be until the winter rains. But our little community is now relatively safe because of the containment perimeters created by the skilled and brave women and men of USFS, CALFIRE and our local volunteer fire brigade who worked tirelessly to save humans, their homes, animals, and the beautiful wilderness which is home to so many trees, plants and animals.

The energy of these huge fires was dramatic and overwhelming to me. Yet I learned a great deal and my heart was touched by countless acts of love, faith and kindness around me. In my newsletter about the fires, I shared my personal reflections and learning from the experience, some amazing animal rescue stories, and some practical information on preparing to keep our companion animals safe in natural disasters.

Usually in crises I feel strong, calm and able to take charge if help or leadership is necessary. Not this time. I didn't feel strong at all. I was scared. I was disoriented. And I was tired and not myself for what felt like a long time. I have "started over" many times in this life and the thought of perhaps needing to do it once again from scratch was daunting. Though I realize that fear and any difficult emotions experienced in crisis and trauma are natural, I was still taken by surprise by the depth of my reactions. I felt incredibly vulnerable, not a common feeling for me.

It was a good thing (though not always comfortable!), this surrendering to vulnerability. Preparing to evacuate I began the process of, "Ok what do I take after the cats, their supplies, my computer and a few clothes that will still fit into the car?" It was surprisingly comforting to not feel compelled to try to cram a lot of "things" in the car (though I did fit one St. Francis statue, some non digital photos of beloved whales and cats). As I drove toward town to the home of my friend who kindly invited us to stay in her guest room, I felt an infusion of peace, and an acceptance that what will be will be. I was grateful that we were getting out alive and well.

Before leaving, I went out on the deck to offer chants and tai chi to the great fire and love to all beings who were in its path. As I went outside, I was startled to see a snake. I screamed. The poor little thing. He was only about eighteen inches long (a young, non poisonous CA Striped Racer) and didn't know why I was screamed at the site of him. I had only seen a snake one time here and not on the deck. It is quite an unusual occurrence for our cool micro climate. We have plenty of sun here but not much heat, with a typical daily temperature of about 65 degrees mid day. Once I caught my breath and apologized for screaming, he told me that he was confused and scared from the fires and came to be near me. I was so touched at his trust and affection for me and wished I was more comfortable around him. Maybe someday. That day I was still scared of snake bodies. He said that all of the animals in our forest were sharing stories of what they had seen, what they were smelling and hearing. He said they were all very anxious about the fires. Many had already died. No one knew what would happen. I told him that I didn't know what would happen either, but that if any of us would be harmed by the fire and needed to leave our bodies, I knew without a doubt that we could do so in peace and calm. He liked that. I told him that I would be leaving the property for a time, but showed him where there some very damp and watered down places I had been watering every day to help keep the hour "defensible" if the fire reached us. I told him to burrow down in this wet leafy area and he would be OK even if the smoke came. He said he would tell the other small animals and thanked me. I apologized again for screaming and for my fear of snakes, and asked him to kindly stay off the deck and on the ground to help me feel more comfortable. Our log cabin is very old and has lots of odd little places that animals seem to come through. I have had banana slugs and bats in the house which I deal with and actually enjoy, but I really do not want a snake in the house.

When I saw this house for the very first time I stood on the deck and gazed up at the tall redwoods, I felt a definite presence of angels on the mountain behind the house. It was a pervasive presence; I felt gentle shivers. Because I was enchanted with this house and so happy to soon be moving in, I thought maybe I was imagining the angels. So I simply asked, "are you there?" I heard a small group of them say, "Yes, we live here, many of us. We guard and protect this area and are very happy you are here." In the ensuing years I've felt them and talked with them quite a bit. Every night before going to sleep, I say good night to the redwoods and the angels. They are as much a part of the landscape as the trees. To borrow a term from the fire fighting profession, the mountainside here is sort of a "staging area" for the angels from which they leave to do their service throughout the land of Big Sur and also the ocean nearby. But they always come back. It's as if they are "earth angels" here for service to the earth's inhabitants living nearby.

I asked the angels to protect all the beings here, to comfort and keep all those safe who are meant to stay on the earth, and to help those who would be leaving with gentle love and comfort. They showed me that they were already doing this, and then showed me that there were angels, nature spirits, and souls who had been humans and who deeply love animals were all very, very busy helping the animals impacted by the fires. The picture was very clear that EVERY single animal had help--from insects to reptiles, little mammals, birds, foxes, coyotes and mountain lions. They also showed that were angels with every fire fighter. The picture was one of the fire itself in the middle, the human fire fighters on the ground working to contain the fire, and many thousands of angels, nature sprits, and souls from the other side coming from above to help all the animals in and near the fires. It was as if the spiritual red cross was right there, quite busy and on the job. As they showed me the pictures, I saw my dear friends Isa and Martha, two beloved human friends, devoted animal lovers, who have died in the last few years. I was so happy to see them and how they were helping. I had been feeling guilty and awkward in not feeling strong enough to offer a lot of help to the animals in peril as I was feeling so vulnerable myself. Isa and Martha looked right at me and said, "Teresa go, rest. Take care of yourself. It is not always your job to help others. There is help for you this time. All is well, and your home will be well. There are more than enough of us to help all the animals. THEY ARE NOT ALONE, NONE OF THEM. Go, and then come back home in peace. You need to take care of yourself and your cats now, no one else. Rest. Go inward and rest." I was so grateful I could hardly speak, even telepathically. I took in their loving support and knew it was time to leave and that all was well. It was blessedly evident that there was help from heaven and help from earth for everyone involved.

While staying with our friend while evacuated, the cats had a mixed experience. Olivia had a grand adventure! She was mesmerized by seeing deer for the first time and gray squirrels, much larger than the little chipmunks she knows from our garden. She was quite entertained. KK, sadly, had a very difficult time. Because of his blindness, he was scared of this new environment. It was extremely challenging for him, even with my help, to learn to find his food and litter box. He pretty much stayed on the sofabed and was very depressed, despite loving pampering from our host (his auntie) and me.

After six days, we came home. Within thirty minutes KK was himself again. I don't know who was more relieved--him or me! Though the air was still pungent with the smell of smoke, the first thing I noticed was that the borage had begun blooming while we were gone! Bees were busy foraging the nectar of their delicate, brilliant blue flowers right outside my office window. Hummingbirds were flitting in and out of the Peruvian Lilies, savoring their nectar. And the hollyhocks and sunflowers were covered with swollen buds ready to burst into luscious bloom. More than a dozen doves were enjoying what was left of the massive amounts of seed I put down before evacuating. The cats were contentedly watching them from their screened in porch. The redwoods stood tall in their magnificence. When darkness came, I heard the owls and the foxes making their typical nighttime sounds. We were home. Our home and the beings of this forest community were saved. Relief, contentment and gratitude filled me.

Fires, of course, burn out the old creating space for the new, albeit painfully. My respect for natural rhythms within and around me has increased since the fires. I learned that I can't pretend to not be scared or anxious when I am. It serves me much more to be present with whatever I am feeling and allow the learning about it emerge rather than pretend to know the answers when all I know in the moment is that I am unsettled and scared.

I am blessed that I did not lose my home and need to "start over." But the fires did instigate internal changes. I have spent most of this lifetime, for many reasons, being overly busy with a multitude of responsibilities. Since the fires, I've begun to gently shave out activities that no longer serve me, making more space for what is most meaningful, and for more rest and joy. Renewal has begun.

I began writing these words sitting in my favorite restaurant in the world. Nepenthe, which means "place of no sorrow," sits about 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean and is a landmark institution in Big Sur. It, too, was saved from the fires. Driving the thirty odd minutes south from my home to Nepenthe, I saw the burned out sides of the mountains for the first time. I was stunned to see in person, vs. internet pictures, what the aftermath of the fire actually looked like. I began to cry and had to pull over to the side of the road. It was surreal. In place of the usual lush expanse of green trees and golden summer grasses on the towering Santa Lucia mountains, mountainsides were black. It looked more like the dull black moraine of Alaskan glaciers than the verdant green of the Big Sur mountains that I love and call home. The mountain peaks were white. To a tourist it probably appeared like snow capped mountains. But it was white ash. It was startling.

Seeing the vast blackened areas, and realizing that I was looking at just a very small piece of the hundreds of thousands of acres which had burned, I sobbed. The habitat and lives of countless animals were lost. A fire fighter died helping to contain these fires. People's homes burned down. Seeing the aftermath of a disaster in person is vastly different from seeing it on a computer screen, in a newspaper, on television, or even from hearing a person's story told first hand. Seeing it with my own eyes struck me with a great sadness.

From the restaurant, I looked out at the beautiful blue Pacific Ocean below, home to the whales, and the majestic rocky headlands between the forests and the sea. I took in the live greenery of ferns, live oaks, redwoods and pines surrounding the restaurant. I also took in the view of the black, charred mountains, upon whose ridges many houses had burned down. Yet here I was, having my gourmet vege burger and writing in my journal in my favorite restaurant-- a spiritual landmark of Big Sur that almost burned down. What was gone and what was saved were both in front of me, in one frame of my vision. Sadness and gratitude vied for space in my heart.

I was reminded that life on earth is physical, a physicality that can bring great sensual joy in life and yet always brings death too. Being physical and part of a physical world is what we chose in coming here, and no physical beings live forever in their physical form. Knowing and accepting this intellectually is easy. But gazing at the places of mass death is hard to do without heart wrenching grief. Acceptance of what is, and grief about what is, are not mutually exclusive. Acceptance does not preclude grief, and grief does not preclude acceptance. They both live inside me and are part of me. I send love to all those who grieve the beings who died in these fires, as I grieve for them too. All the animals, the fire fighter who died, and all those who lost their homes and habitat. Along with this solemn grief I celebrate with gratitude the great beauty of the earth around me, my home being spared, and the survival of my beloved cats whose soft fur, loving eyes, tender hearts, and purrs I will sleep with tonight. For all of this, for all that was protected and saved, and for all the heroes from earth and heaven who were part of this fire, for all I have yet to learn from it, I am grateful. To all of you who wondered if we were in danger and reached out to us in emails, prayers and offers to help, thank you, thank you, thank you. It meant a great deal.

May you and your loved ones be at peace. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be bathed in love.